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A female professor, standing and facing the camera, listens to a female undergraduate student talking to her.

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I received dozens of student emails as we entered finals week last month, though my last office hour of the semester was silent. The student-professor relationship is one of the most important elements of the undergraduate educational experience, and it is fraught. The benefits of positive student-professor relationships extend beyond the classroom. A bad or good experience with a professor can be a critical moment that impacts a student for life.

As a graduate student—and against faculty advice—I pursued pedagogical training. In one of the training sessions, a mentor produced typologies of students who would come to office hours so that we could practice how we would interact with them. There was the student who was mainly concerned about their grade, the student who just wanted to chat “to be friends,” the student who was generally frustrated. In this practice session, I imagined an endless line of students waiting to get time with me.

In real life, teaching for a decade in the California State University system and for several years at a University of California campus, this has not been the case. In reality, I have to work hard to get students to show up and/or schedule office hours. To encourage students to come to office hours, I talk to them about office hours from the perspective of what I learned while doing research on the student-professor relationship—that there is not equity when it comes to who shows up to office hours, nor is there equality in how students show up to office hours.

Which students interact with professors and how varies by class background. Evidence suggests race and gender also impact how students show up for the student-professor relationship. In my work on the student experience, I discovered three student orientations toward their professors: appreciative ease, hesitant appreciation and critical suspicion. Interviewing students at an elite university, I found that upper-class students tended to demonstrate an appreciation of their professors and an ease when interacting with them. They stopped by their professors’ offices when they wanted to, invited professors to have coffee and discussed business ideas and interests with their professors. They were savvy and strategic and felt that if they interacted with their professors outside class time, there were likely to be benefits.

Students who were class underresourced also voiced appreciation of their professors; however, they were hesitant to approach and/or interact with them. They did not want to “bother” their professors and had anxiety thinking about what they would say if they were with their professor one-on-one. When they had a question for a professor, they were more likely to come early or stay late after class than to attend office hours or drop in on a professor.

There was a final orientation I noticed, one where students were critical of their professors and felt suspicious that their professors did not care about them. This orientation was expressed most often by students in the middle of the class hierarchy.

Years past this research, I notice similar orientations. There are students who clearly have anxiety about setting up times to meet with faculty. There are students who show up in familiarity, whose ease in interactions demonstrates they are both comfortable and appreciative. Then, though rarer at a regional public university, there are students who push back and either complain and/or critique things I do: the lesson plan, the grading, the syllabi. There are challenging students.

In researching, living and reflecting on the student-professor relationship in higher education, I understand that it is not just students who can be challenging, antagonistic and critical—that, in fact, there are swaths of professors who are challenging, as well as those who are antagonistic and critical of students. I am fortunate to be in a department with colleagues who care deeply about students and their success. But we hear stories, both locally, about professors who cause student anguish with punitive customs and deficit-based approaches, such as not allowing students to show up five minutes late to class, and also nationally, like the professor who called the police on tardy students. We know policies that don’t consider student trauma or inequity, like compelling a late student to orally defend their tardiness on the spot, are promoted.

There are professors who believe students are lazy, can’t be trusted and don’t deserve their empathy. Yet Devon Price reminds us that laziness doesn’t exist. There are always reasons for a student’s behavior. Last semester, I walked several students to counseling and psychological services. The semester prior, there was a deeper crisis. We know the mental health of professors and students matters for the classroom experience and that we are in a mental health crisis nationally. To be sure, professional boundaries are important, particularly considering that students will gravitate toward the professors they know care about them and that emotional labor of professors is racialized and gendered.

As budget crises unfold on our campuses, as we approach or go over the demographic cliff, it occurs to me that students and faculty are the primary building blocks of a university. Though our roles are different, our co-existence legitimizes all the other bureaucracy of the institution. Perhaps it is time we start working more consciously on our relationship.

There are things we can do to support our students. First, we can care about the people they are regardless of how they show up in our course. I make it clear to my students that I do not judge them as people for their performance in my class, that I know they are valuable and worthy regardless of their grade.

Second, we can reconsider high-stakes university experiences that have been found to be racist, classist and sexist. Recently, I shared insight about how to build a robust course on a series of low-stakes learning experiences that can decrease stress in the classroom and build trust with students. We can encourage students to show up in office hours. We can take care of our mental health so that we can do the small things that deeply matter, like internally genuinely welcoming a late student to class.

Megan Thiele Strong is an associate professor of sociology at San José State University and a 2023–24 Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project. She has 20 years of experience teaching in undergraduate classrooms, with 15 of those as an instructor of record.

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